Former Arsenal and France midfielder Emmanuel Petit spoke exclusively with Compare.bet on Monday following the start of the World Cup. The World Cup Winner spoke about France’s chances after their injury woes, Bukayo Saka’s quality, Ben White’s strong start to the season, his favourites to lift the trophy and how far England can go.
- Manu on Saka: ‘The future of Arsenal and the future of England.’
- Ben White ‘One of the best defenders in England.’
- Mbappe needs to be ‘Just like Zidane was in 1998.’
- Opening game was ‘Embarrassing’ for Qatar.
- Why Brazil are his favourites.
MB: Hi Manu, thanks for speaking with us today. What are your thoughts on yesterday’s opening ceremony and first match?
EP: I was impressed with the opening ceremony, but with all the respect I have for Qatar, that was not the game I was expecting. I played the first game of the World Cup twice, once in France, and then in Asia in 2002, and it’s something special. It gives you a vision of what will happen in the rest of the tournament, and I cannot remember a game so poor in the first game of the World Cup. I was not pleased with the way Qatar played. I can understand the players were under pressure, and I understood what the manager said after the game, emotionally they were so stressed and you could see that in their body language. But that was Ecuador in front of them, not Germany, England, Brazil or France. It was probably the easiest game for them in their group and it was disappointing to see. It was also sad to see most of the Qatari fans leave the stadium when it was 2-0. I’ve never seen anything like that before at a World Cup. I don’t want to criticise Qatar because they don’t need me to do that, there are so many people around the world criticising them, but I felt embarrassed watching the game. It was beautiful before the game and I was excited, but then I was expecting an open game, and it was so poor. I’m sure Mr. Al Thani will ask the supporters to stay until the end of the game next time, because this was so strange. Qatar knew the eyes of the world were focused on them, and I can understand them being overwhelmed by the occasion.
MB: We first saw France lose Christopher Nkunku to injury, and now Karim Benzema is out. How big of a miss will those two players be and how do you think France will cope without them?
EP: Benzema is a huge miss, but the national team has shown that it can win finals without him before. But of course it’s a big loss, because he’s the Ballon d’Or winner and just his presence can get in the opponents heads. France has had so much bad news in the past few months on and off the pitch, and i’m thinking “who’s going to be the next player to get injured?” We’ve already lost four players from the starting 11 in Benzema, Pogba, Kante and Kimpembe and there are others missing from the bench too. There are a lot of questions surrounding this team, but now the power is in Mbappe’s hands. If he plays at his peak in the World Cup then France have a great chance to do something great. But if he isn’t at his usual level then we have problems, because we all know France has quality up front, but we have many questions surrounding the midfield and in central defence. Varane has been missing for a month, and it could be Saliba, Konate, Upamecano. There’s so many options and Deschamps doesn’t know his best defence. For France to do well, Mbappe needs to be a leader, just like Zidane was in 1998.
MB: Kante and Pogba are a big miss for France’s midfield. Can the other midfielders in the squad step up and fill the void left by them?
EP: We all know that historically Deschamps is not a manager that will put four attacking players on the pitch. It will probably be 4-3-3 because in his head he will want to reproduce what worked in the last World Cup in Russia. He knows that if you want to win big trophies you have to be strong in defence. We have nine defenders, seven of which are central defenders. That means he will likely play four true defenders. One thing that is for sure, he will not do what he did in the European Championships, because that did not work. He will go back to what worked in 2018.
MB: You mentioned the defence, with Kimpembe’s fitness and Varane’s status being up in the air. Arsenal fans are wondering if Saliba will get a game and contribute for France in the tournament. Do you think he’s going to be an important player for France?
EP: He can, because we lack experienced central defenders aside from Varane, who may not be fit enough for the first game which means the responsibility for the central defenders will be between Konate and Upamecano. If I have a good memory, Upamecano has seven caps and Konate has only four caps. Saliba has seven caps as well, which means all together, they have only eighteen caps! I won’t put away their qualities, but I would love to see Saliba, but I’m sure he’ll play with Upamecano and Konate. I would’ve played Saliba and Konate, for sure. That’s my vision. But everyone has their own vision, and reading things yesterday and this morning, and a lot of people are predicting we will play with Upamecano and Konate. We’ll see.
MB: Who do you think are favourites to win the tournament?
EP: Brazil, because they look very strong in every department. They have so many players who are among the best in their positions, an experienced group as well. The statistics as well are frightening, I can’t remember the last time they lost a game. It’s the last chance for Neymar to win the World Cup, it’s been twenty years now since a South American team won the World Cup. Argentina are up there too with Brazil to win it. But I’d put my money on Brazil. They look really strong, and more important for me, I remember myself when I was a child, I was so impressed with the way Brazil played. One touch, magicians just the way they played on the pitch. But for the last twenty years I’ve been disappointed with the way Brazil have played because they lost their magic, their inspiration on the pitch. When you look at the players they have now in midfield and upfront, they look how they used to be. Flair and creativity, something you cannot learn on the training camp or reading a book, it’s only in your head, in your DNA. They have players like this, but also look very solid as a team, very mature, very experienced. They have so many match winners in that team, so I’d put money on Brazil personally.
MB: How do you rate England’s chances to win the World Cup?
EP: England are among the favourites as well, outsiders just like France. But they have problems, like France in defence. Is he going to play Ben White? He’s having a great season for Arsenal, I’d play White as a central defender. I’d play with players who are in good shape, physically and mentally. And Ben White is one of the best defenders in England, and has confidence as well. So I’d probably play with him in central defence. They have the quality to win the World Cup, it’s probably the last occasion for players like Kane. But if you want to win big trophies, you need to be great in defence. France and England are not the best in defence, I’m sorry to say.
MB: How important is Bukayo Saka going to be for England during the World Cup and how highly do you rate him as a player?
EP: I’m very impressed with him as a person and a player. He’s a humble guy, hard worker, respectful. He keeps focused on his ambitions. After everything he has been through – the criticism and the racism, he has been incredible on and off the pitch. He is the future of Arsenal and the future of England. He, Bellingham and Foden are the future of the England team. It is so important to have players like Saka, they are priceless. Players that are professional, humble, respectful. I rate him so high and he can still improve a lot. He’s grown so much in the last 2-3 years, and he has already done so many beautiful things and he can still do so much more. He’s improved every year and is showing he is capable of taking the next step.